Gamer Heal Thyself With Jane McGonigal's SuperBetter

When Jane McGonigal suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2009, she created a game, "SuperBetter," to help herself heal. Today, she unveiled a new platform, SuperBetter, to help others cure what ails them, from obesity to a broken leg to addiction.

Deeply impacted by a traumatic brain injury in 2009, and struggling with traditional therapy, Jane McGonigal created a game--SuperBetter--to help heal herself. It worked. Since then, the best-selling author and game designer has been creating SuperBetter the platform to empower anyone to create a browser-based SuperBetter game, tailored to cure whatever ails.

Before speaking as a panelist at the SOCAP11 conference in San Francisco this week-- an event that inspires the "flow of capital to [entrepreneurs advancing] social good," McGonigal revealed the SuperBetter beta and a list of partners in her tech-forward effort to make self-help more effective.

She revealed that Zappos is SuperBetter's pilot customer and development partner. (McGonigal and Zappos' founder Tony Hsieh are good friends.) All Zappos employees will be creating and playing SuperBetter games in the coming months to become less stressed, more fit, and generally happier with their lives.

Ahead of SOCAP, McGonigal recounted her inspiration to bring SuperBetter to the masses in a call with FastCompany:

I had a mild traumatic brain injury in 2009 and had a very hard time healing. It looked like an impossible road ahead. I didn’t know if I could go back to work, or ever be myself again. It was a low point in my life. In a flash, in one moment of clarity that I had, I thought--if I could approach my recovery in the same way that I could play games, it would feel like anything was possible. It would feel like I was on a road to getting better, an adventure, where I had friends and family who felt like my allies helping me get better. So, I made up a game that helped me.

Later, I published the rules online and off, and got letters from everyone who took them up and made their own versions of SuperBetter. People around the world played this game to help themselves lose weight, get over asthma, diabetes, knee surgery, chronic pain, autoimmune problems, even unemployment. There was a point where I got so many letters that I thought this was something bigger. Finally, SuperBetter is a platform that's ready and available to try out in beta.

In this system, users will be able to: create games to address certain challenges they're facing; select a nickname (like Jane The Concussion Slayer); build their own headquarters or laboratory (image below); select villains to fight, and allies to enlist to play with them online; or choose tasks they must accomplish in order to progress to an "Epic Win." Perhaps those are predictable aspects of the SuperBetter platform.

A more surprising element is the game system's inclusion of scientific, interactive footnotes. If users--perhaps wary after too many Mafia Wars enticements surfaced on their Facebook walls--wonder why they should bother to enlist allies to play SuperBetter with them, how that helps them heal, they can click on a symbol within the game screen, and learn more about the impact of allies on their health.

Users will be presented with notes from studies like this one, Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analystic Review, by psychology and epidimeology researchers at the University of North Carolina and Brigham Young University. They found:

"Social relationships are linked to better health practices and psychological processes such as stress and depression that influence health outcomes in their own right...[and involve] multiple biologic pathways that in turn influence a number of disease[s]... Social support is linked to better immune functioning..."

 

Other partners in the development of SuperBetter the platform have included clinical researchers from Stanford, UC Berkeley, the University of Pennysylvania, and Ohio State University. All contributed scientific insights that guided the development of the SuperBetter platform.

Ohio State University will further embark on clinical trials of SuperBetter games starting on September 26. McGonigal said, "They have a leading research group looking into traumatic brain injury. They contacted me about six months ago asking if they could help me. They've been working with us to think through what will be helpful for doctors to play with their patients, or for patients to play at home with the families."

The idea that healing from an injury or illness could be as simple as playing FarmVille or becoming a mayor on Foursquare almost makes you want to go catch a flu to try it out. Almost. SuperBetter can help users achieve goals like training for a half-marathon, or becoming a better dancer, too though. One user enlisted her family to go on a vegan diet for 30 days, McGonigal recounts. Another used it to get over a breakup.

Because the achievements this game inspires could fall into any category, SuperBetter seems well positioned to seek revenue from advertisers, from Whole Foods to Match.com. McGonigal is not sure exactly how she will generate revenue with the game platform, though. She is committed to keeping at least some primary version of this social game free to all users.

FastCompany readers can gain priority access to become SuperBetter beta platform users by visiting this link and entering the code: FastCompany

[Editor's note: Ahead of her speech at SOCAP, I wished McGonigal good luck on stage with a traditional note, "Break a leg." She quipped that if she ever does suffer another injury, including a broken leg, her readers, followers and colleagues will be suspicious: "It's a ruse! She's just trying to get SuperBetter again. She's working on something."]

[Image: Avantgame via Wikimedia Commons]

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4 Comments

  • r

    This article hits close to home. Was on my back for 5+ years recovering from a series of painful surgeries. During that time I found playing on my Xbox kept me as distracted from the pain as narcotic pain medication. In addition to the mental distraction, I wonder if the endorphin release assisted in pain relief. I'd like to know if there have been any studies regarding video games and psychological/physiological effects in pain management as well. Looking forward to reading McGonigal's book!

  • Drew Rose

    I've often wondered about the benefits of gaming over the long term and after listening to her TED talk, her discoveries are quite interesting. After reading the book, Consequential Strangers, this game makes complete sense.

    Really like the message in this!

    Well, off to figure out how to make gaming 'feel' less like I should be doing something else.

  • Azin Mehrnoosh

    Very exciting, I love Jane McGonigal's ideas and work. This will hopefully be a great first step toward putting serious energy toward systems for positive social change.